“Pretty never helped a man like a mule,” warned friends of the beauteous young artist Rose O’Neill when she took a fancy to handsome, aristocratic Virginian, Grey Latham.
Rose O’Neill, after a three-year stint as a child actress, dazzled judges in art contests from the age of 14, and became a professional illustrator when her precocious drawings so astonished adjudicators that they made her sit in front of them to produce work by her own hand before they would give her first prize.
In 1893, she moved to New York City and lived in a convent. Back then, a girl’s virtue not only counted for something, its reputation was fragile. Nuns accompanied the stunner O’Neill on visits to publishing houses where editors were captivated by the art of the teenaged girl. She worked for numerous major clients and produced over 700 illustrations and cartoons for a series of famous publications, including the legendary magazine Puck. Her income and reknown bloomed like a rose.
However practical considerations were not a concern for O’Neill. She took up with Grey Latham, who visited her while she was guarded by nuns in New York. He also traveled to her family’s country home. Smitten by the handsome Latham, Rose made him the model for the gorgeous men in many an illustration.
Latham was a beaux of the old school, the son of a Confederate officer turned chemist and professor. He did not take well to work, and neither did his decorative brothers Otway and Percy, both of whom were clever and well-liked, but raised to believe that gentlemen did not labor.
Their father, Major Woodville Latham, survived the fall of the Confederacy. He was tough-minded and ambitious. From an old Southern family, he was born into wealth and privilege. But as the fortunes of the day changed, Latham had to seek new business ventures to keep him and his family living in the style to which they had been born.
One year after Rose O’Neill first went to New York City to seek her fortune as an illustrator and cartoonist, the Lathams and a school chum sauntered down the avenue of the big city where they stumbled across the new wonder of the age: the Kinetoscope.
The tiny peepshow screen featured a popular performer of the day doing gymnastic routines. Grey Latham saw dollar signs.
“There, that’s a business to get into,” he declared. “I’ll tell you what! Everybody’s crazy about prize fights, and all we have to do is to get Edison to photograph a fight for this machine and we can take it out and make a fortune on it.”
Otway and Grey Latham, Samuel J. Tilden, Jr., and Enoch Rector formed the Kinetoscope Exhibition Company, and formed an alliance with Edison, giving them a contract that would restrict their Kinetoscope efforts to fight exhibitions while Edison’s other scientists tried to develop their own films and technologies.
The technical limitations of the Kinetoscope were daunting, especially considering the length of a prize fight. The Kinetoscope could only hold a negative of 50 feet, too short to record an entire fight.
Rector was able to come up with new Kinetoscope technology that allowed them to flim longer and longer segments. They then set up the kinetoscopes in a parlor to which patrons could come to view portions of the fight on a series of scope screens.
The results were sensational. They created the longest film to date, and the Lathams, once bordering on shabby genteel, were the dandies of the town. Police had to control the crowds wanting a look at the modern marvel.
However, it wasn’t long before the public lost their taste for peep shows and prize fights. As business trickled off, they sought new ways of making movies and showing them.
“You see, if we could project that picture on a sheet, like the stereoptican slides, there’d be a fortune in it. Can we do it?” asked Otway Latham.
“You can project anything on a screen that you can see with the naked eye and which can be photographed,” replied Woodville Latham.
The Lathams and their small company – together with Edison company employees – came up with the technology to not only project motion picture film onto a screen, but they created one of the most important tiny bits of common sense tech ever: the Latham Loop.
The Latham Loop is that loop of slack film that winds around the projector wheels. That small loop keeps the film from catching and tearing itself up. This enables the projector to run long strips of film.
The result: the Latham’s filmed another fight, and on May 20, 1895, the world saw the first film projection on a screen.
There were squabbles and lawsuits over who did what, with Edison and his company claiming much of the credit. The court battles went on for 13 years, and the Lathams were crushed.
However, when Rose O’Neill met Grey, he was the toast of New York. They wed in 1896.
Hard working O’Neill was the main breadwinner and a celebrity in her own right. There was even a popular song that is supposed to be about her: the Rose of Washington Square. The lyrics, and a very old recording of the song are available here.
Grey Latham was a beautiful beaux, but a lazy rat. Content to rest on his laurels, he was also content to rest on hers, and squandered her money. His film ambitions notwithstanding, he was not considered a responsible man by many who knew him.
Grey made several movies as a director and is listed as Gray Latham at IMDB.Side-Walks of New York (1897), Bullfight (1896), Drill of the Engineer Corps (1896), are the only listings of his work at the site, though he made a few other attempts at film making. They are not works of art, but are very important to the history of art, among the first motion picture films for the screen ever made.
Latham loved to gamble, loved the high life, and exploited his talented and successful wife.
Apparently, this established the pattern for filmakers screwing over cartoonists that continues to this day.
Latham plundered Rose’s earnings, and she finally left him, only to return later. But the pretty man mulishly refused to change his ugly ways, and Rose, on more than one occasion, found herself arriving at her publisher’s office to pick up her payment, only to discover that her decorative louse of a husband had beaten her to it, leaving her so broke she could not even afford cab fare home.
Finally, in 1901, Rose O’Neill had enough. She dumped pretty Grey Latham.
Mistreating Rose O’Neill was the dumbest of all Grey Latham’s dumb moves, because not only was she about to become one of the world’s most famous women, she was about to become filthy rich as well.
After another unsuccessful marriage, this time to her dour Puck editor, O’Neill retreated to her family home in rural Bonniebrooke where she came up with a series of drawings featuring cute, pudgy, cupid-like characters called…well…Kewpies.
The Kewpies became a worldwide phenomenon as a cartoon strip and as merchandising. O’Neill herself carved the first Kewpie statue, and her earnings from the Kewpies came to about $1.5 million dollars, making her the highest paid woman illustrator in the world. At a time when the average US income was around $500 per year, O’Neill’s earnings would be worth about $35 million dollars now. Income tax was dead low, so dollars went far.
Grey Latham, who used O’Niell’s money to finance his film ambitions and lifestyle didn’t get a penny of the real fortune that was to come.
Perhaps that is why, one year later, the still very young Latham was dead. So was his brother Otway. Brokenhearted Major Woodville followed his sons in 1911, but lives forever in cinema history.
As for O’Neill, her generosity was legendary, and her multiple homes were used as the salons of the rich and famous, including poet/philosopher Kahlil Gabran.
Kewpie money began to wane by the 1930′s. O’Neill took a hit when her German kewpie-making factory was stilled by WWI. O’Neill, who loved her new, affluent lifestyle ran low on cash.
Her timing for her new artistic venture was lousy. Trying to recreate the Kewpie Phenom, she came up with a new character called HoHo, a cute, laughing little Asian Buddha.
Just in time for Pearl Harbor.
No wonder she began having strokes.
O’Neill was dead broke in her beloved estate Bonniebrooke by 1944, having written her incomplete memoirs that are especially incomplete on the subject of the natty but ratty Latham.
The story of Rose O’Neill and Grey Latham…film and comics, together – and squabbling – from day 1.
FOLLOW UP POST HERE: HAPPY BIRTHDAY KEWPIES!
This post originally appeared on the old blog, but has been updated and images have been added, some from my personal collection of the work of Rose O’Neill. Photo of the Latham family from the Picture Showman blog, an excellent cinema history resource where you can learn more about the Latham loop.
Thanks for stopping by.
Many thanks to the Rose O’Neill Museum for their kind words of encouragement and support.
Art and photos are public domain.